Words: Dominic Valvona
The last album round up of 2015 features sonic imperfections from The Untied Knot, the Bacharach inspired ruminations of Thomas White’s The Fiction Aisle, Throbbing Gristle imbued post punk and kosmiche rays from Steeple Remove, guitar fashioned soundscapes from Craig Ward, daemonic metal from Elefant, and the boogie down Bronx epistles of Bruse Wane.
The Untied Knot ‘Description Of A Flame’
Logically and concisely set out in the style of a scientific paper, documenting 12 months worth of recorded material with a full itinerary list of apparatus, recording studio locations and allusions to bio-chemistry, the latest album from The Untied Knot partnership of Nigel Bryant and Matt Donovan is far from an exercise in impartial, serious academia.
Delivered on CD and across a double vinyl set, Descriptions Of A Flame is shaped from a series of improvisations recorded over two set periods during 2014, January to June and in the month of June, with overdubs added at later stages. Unrushed with a rich live warmth Donavan and Bryant’s sound is perfectly summed up by the duo as ‘sonic imperfections’. No over-analysis, nothing sounds too stressed or discordant, just a searching sense of wonders and a release, coaxed from many unforced sessions.
From the very first redolent Faust noodling’s of the opening ponderous ‘Aluminium Dream’ to the astral rainforest peace of the magnificent kosmiche finale ‘Everything Lasts Forever’, an omnipresent leviathan of exploration hangs over the collection. A presence in the form of investigation places subjects and title descriptions under a musical microscope, no matter how extemporised and freely put together, the duo have crafted a thing of suffused beauty; the very DNA of their inspirations dissected and stretched out to reveal a hidden soundtrack.
Recorded as I’ve mentioned at various stages, a common pattern or congruous thread has been found when grouping the 15 tracks together. Split into four quarters, at least on vinyl, each act forms a minor work in its designated flow. Though themes, ideas and sounds often make a return throughout.
Tubular oscillations, languorous searing space funk and sustained arching harpsichord like synths delivered by a 70s Sky label version of a Lydon free PiL seep into the imagination on side one. On the second act, we’re met by Donovan’s loose but meticulous signature Krautrock drumming – more Peter Leopold and Jaki Liebezeit than motorik Dinger – and modulating fuzzed guitar with the hypnotising psychedelic ‘Natural Velocity’. The duo meander back into Zappi/Péron Faust territory with the lumbering metal tube and anvil clanged ‘Zen Atrophy’, and on the devouring whomping synth based ‘Swallowed By The Spiral’ they head out into Dune country.
Ushered in with gentler vibrations with a halcyon jarring, side three is launched with the mirage shimmering trip ‘The Golden Specks Of Knowledge’. This section features the album’s most curious track, the esoteric Roedelius ‘Glaubersalz’ period, fairytale ‘Ultrastructure’ – imagine if Popol Vuh were solely a guitar band. Otherworldly but also striking a chord with the magical, ancestral Baroque time-traveling experience, I could, and have listened to it for hours.
Closer to home, part four suggests the ghostly mystery of the Mary Celeste on the date of its infamous crew less discovery, ‘5th December 1872’, whilst stepping across The Man Who Fell To Earth as soundtracked by Ry Coder, walking through a desolate desert, on the lap steel-pedal guitar (played by Shane Gilliver, who also helped entitle this piece) dreamy ‘Legendary Fountain’. ‘The Death Of History’ meanwhile is an acid trip with The Dead Skeletons through the Tibetan/Byzantine doors of perception. It’s bookended by the already mentioned, breathtaking Stewart Copeland on the Mosquito Coast suffused, ‘Everything Lasts Forever’.
Luckily for us The Untied Knot’s most impressive album has seen fruition; a pledge fundraiser project that thankfully reached its target, with more to spare. It would have been a sad day indeed if it hadn’t, as Description Of A Flame is a most rewarding, complete experience. Sonic imperfections they might be but they sound far from being merely experiments and unfinished.
Steeple Remove ‘Position Normal’ (Gonzai Recordings)
Originally released in the band’s native homeland of France last year, only previously available on an import to these shores, the fourth album from Rouen’s industrial stargazers Steeple Remove is manoeuvring into our attention zone once again. Arriving in the UK as a physical release, though much of the material has been floating around for a while now, with three of the nine tracks featured on the first season of the Emmy award-winning French supernatural series Les Revenants back in 2013, Position Normal is the Steeples first album proper in six years.
Almost (and I mean almost) defying any obvious signatures the past and present French music scene, the band oscillate to and take their cue from England’s Genesis P-Orridge. So much in fact that they not only reconstruct and grind out a semblance of, rather than cover, the famous antagonist’s Psychic TV growling ‘Unclean’ but pay a sort of homage throughout to Genesis’s other industrial strength unit, the Throbbing Gristle – elements of ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ and ‘Dream Machine’ are made more palatable as they crop up throughout the album. This isn’t exactly a surprise as the Steeples debut was released by Sordide Sentimental, home to early recordings by the Gristle and Joy Division.
If anything though, they erode the harsh, primal howls and confrontational grunts for something more celestial and halcyon; the vocals for one being vaporous, swimming in the ebb and flow or cooed by unknown Kosmiche sirens. The sonic fields of influence are opened-up as the cosmic dust particles fall on countless influences; specks on the Spaceman 3, The Cult and a Berlin skulking Crime And The City Solution, it’s an 80s free-for-all at times
Merging the motorik with both electronic rock music and post punk they travel from dropping acid at a standoff in the Mojave Desert to the astral-planing over Orion’s Gate. It all sounds knowingly chic and cool, the Steeples metallic sheen reflecting both the ominous and wonders spells of the cosmos. Out of the picture for a while their ideas and influence carried on the interim by The Sunns, Yeti Lane and a Luminous The Horrors, they’ve returned with a Gothic space soundtrack sensibility – as the PR spill declares, ‘…like a movie soundtrack to George Lucas’s THX 1138’, which almost nails it. However, we’ve no idea if this is either a utopian or dystopian vision, with its equal measure of moody grinding and whip snapping guitars alluding to menacing and earthly machinery, and its shimmering afterglows and radiant synthesizer passages that serenade the setting or rising sun both co-existing in mutual support of each other. Position Normal is a driving hypnotic, esoterically dreamy experience, and a welcome return for the band of cosmic adventurers.
Elefant ‘Nordic Tanzen am Sonntag’
Emerging like primordial ooze from a ragtag of Belgium bands, each one as obscure at the next, the misfits of sludge metal and gallows Krautrock unite their strange predilections for the super group Elefant.
Recorded live in Charlaton, Ghent the daemonic Nordic Tanzen am Sonntag is a ritualistic, tongue-in-cheek, horror show. The macabre and equally psychedelic quartet of guitarist/vocalist Wolf Vanwymeersch, drummer Mario Govaert, synth controller Stijn Vanmarsenille and guitarist Maarten Flamand drag their instruments across a bewitching landscape. As you may have already gathered, this heady mix of esoteric menace is heavy. In tribune to the first Greek god of the seas and rivers, ‘Proteus’, a possessed Wolf utters lyrics over a Hex ridden, harassed metal hell on the opening marauder. To a Årabrot pendulous Viking ceremonial clang and unyielding guitar squall, they group drink the demon brew on ‘Smithers’, and conjure up a Giallo style synth pop soundtrack on their theme tune; disorientating with spindled suspense they merge Broadcast Berberian Sound Studio with electro Kosmiche.
By the time they reach ‘A Brief History’ the miscreants have twistedly travelled back to a Bauhaus fucking with Scary Monsters Bowie industrial Gothic 80s. And on the spiral of anxieties ‘Depression’ they make the abstract suffering of mental illness concrete in the style of NIN. There is of course a whole load of influences, bastardized and honed with a Benelux bent, to be found throughout this five-track survey. Despite the doom and growl, the Elefant are playing it for kicks and with relish.
Craig Ward ‘Leave Everything Move Out’ (Wardism Label)
11th December 2015
Not so much troubled as keen to record a series of melodies that had been rattling around in his head for a decade already, guitarist and Benelux experimental rock stalwart Craig Ward sat down during a January 2009 North American sabbatical in the Topanga Canyon searching for a suitable framework to hold these stubborn ideas. Ward managed a demo during that time-out period, followed by an unfortunately aborted recording later that same year in his home form home of Belgium. Shelved indefinitely, left but not forgotten, Ward got a second, third, wind, enlisting his old chum and producer David Odlum to help finally nail the bastard. Recorded back in the inspiring west coast setting of Scotland’s Argyll, at his Ford Studio and home, Ward’s efforts were awarded lottery funding via the Creative Scotland Enterprise.
Honing his skills and interlayered guitar sculptures, laid down in the various combos he’s been an integral part of, from A Clean Kitchen Is A Happy Kitchen to iH8 Camera and dEUS, and the more recent partnerships with both Mark Mulholland and Raboud Mens, Leave Everything Move Out is Ward’s most expansive and ambitious collection of ponderings yet. Whether it was the mighty atavistic scenery of Scotland, the States or imagined vistas that inspired him, this lucid five track album takes in evocative, grand views on the Land Observation looped guitar travails of ‘New Haven’ and the mysterious bell-tolled painted canvas world of a Renaissance low countries turn gentle Air-esque piano gilded progressive ‘Triptych’. But as the song titles allude, there are also more intimate meditations, soundtracks composed for the less grand environment. Closer to actions than to the landscape, Ward purposefully evokes a hint of the Edge Of Darkness with his yearning ‘The Archivist’ – almost clandestine with a far deeper complex theme bordering on a thriller, a story is waiting to unfold.
Usually resonating with a closely bound relationship between an altering piano, plaintive, often meticulously placed, mélange of guitar loops and at times emotionally serene strings (courtesy of Ruth O’Mahony Brady), there’s an occasional splurge of drums and post-punk growling, as with the tumult crescendo of ‘The Addict’. As with all of these compositions, Ward fades in and out of cycles; The Addict starting out motoring along a train but then broadsided with an anvil thrashing drum break of inner torment. Passages are gradually worked in a similar vein throughout, with ideas naturally melting away or dropping out once they’ve reached some kind of conclusion.
The most rich, emotionally artistic and crafted album yet from Ward, his second solo effort and first to be launched on his own label is more panoramic soundtrack than alternative rock experiment. Still intimate and challenging yet far more scope, the sound is widened to accommodate new fields of investigation.
The Fiction Aisle ‘Heart Map Rubric’ (Chord Orchard)
Wistfully beckoning the beautiful melodious romance of Bacharach’s songbook, Brighton stalwart Thomas White changes course once again as he dares to dream bigger, crooning his way into ever more ambitious projects.
His most audacious role yet, White’s previous contributions with the halcyon warm-glowing psychedelic Electric Soft Parade and the country-punk rambunctious Brakes supergroup have given no previous indications that a Richard Hawley ruminating orchestral bandleader was bursting to get out. That’s not to say that White’s previous work hasn’t been multilayered, complex and erudite in its own way but The Fiction Aisle is so much…well, so much more grandiose and sweepingly epic.
Indulging himself on the Heart Map Rubric debut opus, he leads a ten-piece band through his lovelorn tumbles and dramatic climbs as he evokes a sophisticated litany of influences. The everlasting themes that never die away are enacted once again with a modern twist of candid resignation and sentiment. The works of Bacharach, from his melodic light dalliances on the Steinway to the woozy, comforting trumpets, flow throughout and inspire a new collection of swooning sophisticated classics.
Lush, seductive and shimmering, the album widens its scope of influence to accommodate hints of Paul McCartney, on the luxuriant languorous ‘Sleep Tight’, Sinatra, serenading on the waltz like seductive ‘Each & Every One’, a Pet Sounds era Brian Wilson, on the lamentable ‘Fears’, Mick Harvey, yearning on the Autumnal storytelling ‘Outskirts’, and Pink Floyd, on ‘The Colour Of Money’.
This taste of American louche and lounge music is quintessentially unique; there is no mistaking its heritage, conceived on the south coast of England in Brighton, with all the local quintessential lyricism you’d expect…and swear words.
Daring to take a stab at nostalgia without fully succumbing to homage and tribute, White has fashioned a brilliantly rich and modern take on an old classic, and in the process delivered some of the most beautiful arrangements of 2015.
Bruse Wane ‘The Earl Manigault Of Rap’ (Wane Enterprises)
Born in Jamaica, schooled in the Bronxdale housing projects of Soundview New York, inspired by the lyrical prowess and skills of fellow Bronx representative, the late, Big Pun, the dark knight borrowed alter ego Bruse Wane is known to deliver some of the rawest and ‘thunderous ‘of epistles.
From beneath the biblical album artwork of his latest diatribe, the promoter/manager and no-nonsense rapper’s ten commandments repel the over-consumed, all production and no substance hyperbole of the current hip hop music scene. For Wane, hip hop ain’t meant shit since the year 2000. He returns to the golden age, but he’s not quite as unequivocally nostalgic as the third generation character in the soul-kicking ‘Ol Head’ homage. Despite dismissing both the old-timers and the millennial generation’s tastes in music, adamant that he experienced the most important era at the dawn of rap music’s blossoming, the thirty/forty year olds that made this record have a keen ear for modern trends. Classical influences, going right back to the playful beat box era of Doug E Fresh, Whistle and Dana Dane on ‘Phenomenal’, to the subterranean eeriness of early RZA on the Fam-ily featured team-up ‘Gah Dammit’, are given a contemporary R&B and languid west coast and southern ‘downlow’ sway.
Yet, there’s no mistaking that Wane’s brand of underground rap was hewn in the Boogie Down Bronx, with all of his roll call of guests hailing from the real Gothem City. From the same side of the Manhattan tracks, fellow Bronx affiliate Chris River, son of the already mentioned Big Pun, carries on the family business; spitting an uncompromising in your face ten bars on the sneering, seething ‘Venom’. A poignant reminder and obvious tribute that poison-baiting track also features the late Brooklyn acolyte Sean Price, who passed away back in August. His last recorded lines are purposeful and commanding, and their meaning obviously amplified in the present context.
Wane is best when he tackles the subjects that matter the most and tap in with the zeitgeist, whether it’s the deaths at the hands of the police epidemic that has spiraled out of control in the States – Wane name checking in particular Eric Garner who died from a heavy-handed police chokehold technique in Staten Island in broad daylight – or the tribulations and trails of making it in the fatuous internet age. Comparing himself to the late South Carolina, Harlem raised, street basketball player Earl Manigault, Wane’s own journey bares some similarities, though the ‘Goat’ as he was known, was fallible to the demons of drug addiction. Throwing away what ‘could have been’, the powerhouse player of the High School league’s potential was cut short when he ran with the wrong crowd and ended up serving various stretches in jail. He continued in a checkered vein, failing to make the cut with the Utah Stars team even though he has been compared to the best players in the history of the game. He would however return to the streets and lay on his famous ‘walk away from drugs’ basketball tournaments for the kids in the projects, and muse philosophically on his life: “For every Michael Jordan, there’s a Earl Manigault. We can’t all make it. Somebody has to fall. I was the one.” There can’t be a more resigned but important message than this, and it is one Wane knows only too well, alluding to his own struggles. Though his own potential is far from spent, The Earl Manigault Of Rap an under the radar classic.